misogyny  | 

Gemma Austin opens up on being a top female chef and dealing with sexual harassment

'It's really not something I tend to dwell on but something I would like to highlight'

Gemma Austin

Paula Mackin

Gemma Austin has opened up on what's it's really like to be a top woman chef - revealing years of sexual harassment and misogyny in the kitchen.

The smiling face, a place in the Great British Menu and the brains behind a host of award-winning kitchens disguise a baptism of fire in her chosen profession.

Now a national figure, she has revealed the roller-coaster of abuse she had to negotiate to get where she is today.

Gemma was set on becoming a nurse when a spinal injury left her unable to complete the training.

She then embarked on a software programming course, thinking she had found her passion, but was once again disappointed.

In a eureka moment, she took on a job in a kitchen, transferred to a culinary arts management course at the Ulster University where she was already enrolled, and spent four years studying and working full-time.

In that time, she climbed the ranks from commis chef to senior sous chef before transitioning into her current role of executive chef and co-owner of Alexander's and Co in Holywood.

A pastry chef by trade, Gemma's A Peculiar Tea pop-up caught the Great British Menu producers' attention, and after being shortlisted for the show, she secured her spot into the group of four chefs vying to represent Northern Ireland in the 2021 series.

But her climb to success has been littered with a series of encounters that would have destroyed the aspirations of many.

"It's really not something I tend to dwell on but something I would like to highlight," she said.

"Anyone who knows me will vouch that I am not a feminist. To open A Peculiar Tea, I studied a culinary degree full-time, worked full-time in a fully male kitchen and didn't take a day off for four years.

"I went home every night and studied cookbooks cover to cover and paid to watch professional chefs do masterclasses online while my friends were out socialising."

It's a brutal business that demands complete dedication and a tough skin. She's had to tough it out when it comes to working with male colleagues and details an appalling list of abuses and attitudes.

Gemma Austin prepares her Canapes.

"In my time I worked with a man who wouldn't let me cook, told me to paint my nails instead.

"I had my ass slapped constantly, had my trousers pulled down in front of the whole kitchen, had a chef push my hand down his trousers to 'search for gold', had my whites pulled open (they are click buttons) so I was standing in my bra... to name a small few."

In a brutally frank and honest assessment of her career she admits she's had to "laugh off" a series of abusive incidents.

"I laughed. 'Good one guys.' I never let it faze me."

She said she used the abuse to fuel her determination to succeed.

Her invitation to the Great British Menus is something she describes as a justification for her determination and the greatest accomplishment of her career to date.

"My family made me promise to stay away from social media because of how bad it got. People don't see that though.

"They don't see the panic attacks before work because you're being told you're not good enough for where you are."

The insecurities remain despite her success and she is constantly challenged abut her place in the industry.

"Do you have any idea how annoying it gets when every interview you're asked to do is about how hard it is to be a female chef when in actual fact I would love someone to ask how great it is to be a chef? Being a female chef is hard. Being a male chef is also hard."

She added: "But doing what you love and being recognised for it is incredible."

She admits to being frustrated by being pigeon-holed because of her gender and dismisses any suggestion her views could be seen as "anti-men".

"This is by no means a rant about men. I am where I am because of some of the incredible male chefs who guided and taught me. This is me making the point that I want to be considered a good chef, not a good 'female' chef."

Posting on Facebook, she said it was the right time to speak out.

"The only reason I posted my message was because it is a small glimpse of the crap I have to listen to on a daily basis.

"Long story short, treat people how you want to be treated. Congratulate people on their success and the risk they take instead of telling them they're not good enough."

Gemma admits being a child at heart, her friends call her 'Peter Pan' because of her love of fairytales.

"Yes I am a big kid, I love all things about fairytales and games and that is the theme of Peculiar Tea, this month it's Cleudo where the customers have to guess what their meal is going to be. It's great fun and something a bit different.

"I have a great team behind me in the kitchen and they are all females, that's not because I chose that, it was not a conscious decision but because my team have been with me for years, when I go they chose to come with me. Again I would like to point out I'm not anti-men, it just worked out that way.

"Half my staff are men, I couldn't care if people are gay, Catholic or Protestant, there should be no discrimination. Male, female, it should not matter, in my restrurants, my kitchens, there is no place for discrimination, there is no place for hierarchy either. We all have each other's backs."

Gemma says her potentially soul-destroying experiences through her journey to the top makes her want to be the best employer.

"I learnt to stand up for myself but in reality I shouldn't have had to but it was a learning experience for me. I have been made to feel I wasn't good enough, I would never do that to someone else. I would never belittle anyone and that is one of my driving forces behind what people say is my success.

"I am happy in my own skin and I know at 30 years old I have done good. My family, my friends and my partner are all proud of me and that's all that matters,"

Her success has brought her some unwelcome attention on social media, some abusers suggesting the only thing women are good enough for in a professional kitchen is washing the dishes.

"I have heard it all but I'm speaking out because you can make it in this world, I have, and despite all the negative comments and experiences I love what I do and I would always support others who want to what I do.

"I love fairytales and mine had a happy ending but it was tough and I know it's tough for others in this trade, males and females, it's a hard but really rewarding job if you are with the right people."


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